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Cunningham: More 'housing first' investments a better choice than 'sanctioned camping' for Tucson's homeless

Last October, I wrote in my newsletter about the concept of sanctioned camping. The idea is that the city has an area where camping by homeless folks is allowed, which means that there is one place to put resources for the homeless, moves many of them out of other locations and frees up the police to deal with homeless people who are committing crimes.

At the time I wrote that, it was an idea I had heard and that I’d been mulling over. However, I saw the concept as more of a stop-gap while we worked on a more permanent solution.

I have serious worries about the safety of residents of such camps. This is not a matter of just cordoning off a few acres of vacant land and telling folks to have at it. If you want to establish a safe camping area, you need both security and services.

Back in February, we heard from Housing and Community Development staff about the cost of a camp, based on what is done in other cities. To put together what they termed a “pallet village” serving between 70 and 90 people, complete with security, sanitary facilities and other services, it would cost $1.45 million.

That’s a million and a half dollars that could go into other housing solutions, solutions that are comparably priced when looking at costs on a per-client basis and have a better chance at long-term results.

I made a visit to the Wildcat Inn, a property on North Oracle that the city owns. As of April 5, there were 39 formerly homeless clients living there.

The important thing about Wildcat and the three other similar properties that the city manages is that it is run on the “housing first” model. Many programs over the past few decades have put up some sort of barrier to entry: you don’t have a spouse, you don’t have a pet, you must be looking for work, you must be drug free, you must take care of your mental health issues.

On the surface, that sounds reasonable. However, many of the problems that cause a person to be homeless can’t easily be solved if you don’t have a regular place to sleep. The premise of housing first is simple: the best way to cure a person’s homelessness is to find them a home.

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It’s more expensive than just providing a bed; it costs the city $5,927 per client for a stay that is expected to average four months. With that cost, the city can provide an array of services on-site, including drug treatment and other medical services, employment counseling and behavioral health. This has enabled seven Wildcat clients to move to permanent housing in just the first two months of the program.

We have many disused old motels here in Tucson, so we have an opportunity to buy more properties like the Wildcat Inn. If we’ve got a million and a half dollars to spend, I’d much rather buy one of those that spend it on a temporary solution.

Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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